4 weeks: 4 weeks terrestrial only – 8 June – 5 July 2024
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The KwaZulu-Natal teams are based in the Somkhanda Game Reserve, where you will be accommodated in a tented, fenced camp. This reserve is community owned, home to the Big 5 (lion, leopard, buffalo, rhino and elephant) and stretches across 12 000 hectares of natural Zululand Bushveld. The reserve management are monitoring the effectiveness of having a designated conservation area which isn’t accessible by vehicle, and the distribution patters of the animals across the reserve. Opwall teams are assisting local researchers to assess the success of this for South African conservation and provide the reserve management with the empirical data they need to make informed decisions.
You will spend half of your time in the field, helping with vehicle-based distance sampling of large mammals. You will also be working on foot, completing biodiversity assessments of birds and vegetation, estimating the level of fire and herbivory impacts on vegetation across the whole reserve. The rest of your time will be spent in camp where you will have daily lectures on “An Introduction to African wildlife conservation and management”. You will also assist with installing, servicing and the analysis of camera trap data from an extensive network of cameras placed across the reserve to capture evidence of illusive and nocturnal species.
Operation Wallacea and our partners, Wildlife and Ecological Investments (WEI), coordinate large-scale research programmes to provide an empirical backbone for key conservation projects in South Africa. Our main aim is to assist conservation managers with pressing large-scale issues that they do not necessarily have the resources to address themselves. The South Africa research programme covers a series of reserves across the country, each using slightly different management strategies to conserve wildlife in their reserves. Big game areas in South Africa are fenced to avoid the spread of disease and conflicts between communities and dangerous animals. However, in reserves surrounded by densely populated areas such as Somkhanda Game Reserve, human-wildlife conflict can be a major challenge. Here, our research teams are looking at the extent of this conflict with a special focus on large mammal species. Large mammal distributions are monitored regularly through game transects, and nocturnal mammal distributions are assessed using a matrix of camera traps set up throughout the reserve. By combining this information with our knowledge of areas of dense human activity, we can begin to understand how human disturbance can alter large mammal movement and behaviour.
The restriction of natural movement caused by fences can also lead to locally dense mammal populations with high levels of vegetation impact. Elephants, for example, are ecosystem engineers and their impact can alter vegetation structure and composition. By directly monitoring both fire and feeding impact on vegetation and its knock-on effects to other taxa, such as birds, our teams can assist the reserve managers to better understand how elephants can affect long-term change in the ecosystem. Monitoring of this type is also highly important in Gondwana Game Reserve, which is situated in the biodiversity hotspot of the Cape Floral Kingdom in the Western Cape, and is one of the first reserves to introduce elephants back into this region. This Big-5 reserve has converted agricultural land to conservation, with the large mammals feeding on old agricultural grasslands as fynbos vegetation holds little nutritional value for large herbivores. Reserve management here have therefore asked us to monitor how the large, enigmatic game species are utilising the various vegetation types found within the reserve, to conserve the diversity of critically endangered vegetation types while supporting Big-5 tourism and conservation of the area.
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Our expeditions run during the South African winter, so in Somkhanda temperatures can drop as low as 0-2 degrees at night. It is also dry season, however, so the chances of rain are slim here and days are usually sunny and warm with temperatures up to 18-22 degrees. The temperatures are generally warmer at night in Sodwana, and the sun can be quite strong when out all day at the beach.
Fitness level required
Low. There are some short hikes over rough terrain, but most of the work is in or close to the game-viewer vehicles.
Accommodation in Somkhanda is in shared tents, and accomodation in Sodwana is in small shared cabins. In both sites beds are provided. Both sites have hot running showers and flushing toilets provided in a separate block and constant electricity. There is patchy phone signal in Somkhanda and good signal in Sodwana, but no wifi at either site.
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